A few of my good blogging friends are reading through the book Red Letters by Tom Davis and posting about it on their blogs.  (Check out Brandi and Missy’s posts.)  I finished reading it a few days ago and would heartily recommend it.  I think Tom Davis is one of those individuals who is not just talking the talk, but also undeniably walking the walk.  He shares from his heart in a way that challenges, convicts and inspires one to action.  I wasn’t able to post at the beginning of the week because of Henry’s appointments at Shriners, but I am planning on jumping in on the discussion next week.  For now I wanted to share something that has been on my heart for months (I’m finally finishing one of the half-written posts I have tucked away, Missy! 🙂 )  It’s something that hit me last fall when I read Tom Davis’s first book Fields of the Fatherless.  And it was a clear theme throughout Red Letters as well, so I was prompted to finish this post and share it. 

It has to do with the word compassion.  Tom touches on the literal meaning of this word in his first book and it prompted me to delve deeper into my own word study.  It’s one of those words you hear thrown around so often that it’s easy to become almost familiar with.  “Compassion… Oh, yes, I know what it means…”  But do we really?  It’s a word and a concept at the very core of Jesus life and as I started looking closer, I realized how much more there is to the word than I originally thought and how central it should be in my life as a believer and follower of Christ. 

There is the obvious similarity in structure (although not necessarily as obvious similarity in meaning) to the word passion.  I realized that even though it seems pretty obvious that passion is the root word of compassion, I wouldn’t have necessarily closely associated these two words.  If someone had asked me (before I started studying it) what the word compassion meant, I would have answered off the top of my head that it meant: “feeling sympathy/empathy or being stirred with feelings of pity or sorrow.”  And if someone had asked me what the word passion meant, I would have said:  “deep emotion, longing, or intense desire” — not necessarily the most eloquent definitions, but that’s what would have come to mind.

I was surprised when I started researching the origins of these words (which is one of the teacher-ish things I like doing — studying the etymology of words.)  Perhaps there are some Latin language majors out there who already know all this, but it was very fascinating to me.  I’ll start with Passion.  Our English word comes from the Latin word “Passio” which literally means “to suffer” and in the dictionary I used (the original Webster’s from 1828 ) it stated that the “highest expression” of this suffering/passion was Christ’s Passion on the cross — His suffering was the culmination of His deep love for mankind.  There was purpose to it, there was passion in it, but it was intense suffering.  There are other meanings as well in the dictionary… many of which you might more readily associate with the word (i.e. zeal; ardor; vehement desire; love) but the root is passio: to suffer

It’s the same Latin word “passio” at the root of our english word compassion.  The prefix “com” is from a Latin prefix “cum” which means “with,” “together,” or “mixed”  (it can also mean “completely or intensely.”)  So the word compassion literally means “suffering together with.”  Literally.  Not just feeling sorry for, or feeling pity toward… but literally mixing our passion; mixing our intense emotions with those who are suffering — by engaging a level of suffering with them.  (I think this could be as simple as really allowing our hearts to break… allowing ourselves to feel the pain — but it also could be actually entering a level of physical suffering with someone.)  This is a hard one because to willingly enter the arena of suffering goes against human nature.  It’s not characteristic and certainly not comfortable to actively pledge our hearts and bodies to the primary thing we as humans recoil from. 

Compassion is a “mixed passion” — compounded of both love and sorrow; it isn’t an easy thing to feel, but it is what we are called to walk in.  And it has to go farther than simply feeling sorrow — the feelings are meant to propel us into actions of love.  They motivate us toward literally mixing our lives with the lives of those we feel compassionately toward. 

As I continued pondering on this, I realized that another aspect of the meaning of compassion is mixing our passion with God’s passion.  I believe His heart still suffers passionately for the oppressed and hurting people all over the world today.  I think His heart is still passionate about the “least of these”… And as I mix my passion (“my vehement desire”) with the Lord’s desire for his precious children, I will begin to walk in a deeper level of true compassion.  My passion is purified as I mix it with His. 

It brings new meaning to the scripture “…take up your cross daily and follow me…” (Luke 9:23).  If Christ’s cross was the ultimate expression of passion.. and we are called to be compassionate people who mix our passion with His, it makes sense that the primary way we walk in compassion is by laying down our lives and following Him.  Taking up our cross isn’t for ourselves!  Following Him isn’t for what we will gain (the rest of this scripture talks about losing our lives to gain them…)  We follow His example of true passion by willingly giving our lives for others.  THIS is the passion Christ walked in and this is the compassion we are to embody.

This is one of the prevailing themes of Red Letters — making the choice to follow our Lord into all the uncomfortable places He walked… laying down our lives like Christ to love (in action) our neighbors all over the world… following His example of ministering to the outcast and oppressed.  It’s a pretty big deal asking God to help us grow in compassion.  It’s more than asking for increased feelings.  It’s asking to lose our lives — in passion for those whose lives are already being lost to disease, injustice, violence and extreme poverty.

*I know this is getting long… But I have to share one more thing:

I also looked up the word compassion in the Hebrew and Greek concordances to see what words were translated from the original Biblical languages into our English version of the Bible.  Most of the words that have been translated to “compassion” mean the same thing in their original language as they do in English — but there was one particular word that stood out to me.  It’s a Hebrew word (racham) that has been translated a few times to the word compassion in the Old Testament, and it has a very unique meaning.  It means literally “the feeling a mother has toward the unborn child in her womb”… “the cherishing and tender love, mercy and pity that she feels toward the baby within.”  Wow.  It gave me such a clear picture of the purity of feelings that come from true compassion.  I remember so clearly the way I felt toward Joanna while I was pregnant… the fierceness of my love and my overwhelming desire for her well-being — unhindered by any of the frustrating emotions that come up now that we have a reciprocal relationship.  The feelings I had toward her before she was born were almost purely unselfish.  My love for her and my desire for her goodwill were not because of anything she was giving me.  They were not a response to her love for me. 

And that is how I am to walk in compassion toward others — not for anything that I can get back — not even because I understand that it is the “right” thing to do, but simply from the same unmerited, unearned love that I had for Jo.  The greatest act of compassionate love was Christ giving His very life — not for anything he would get out of it, but simply because of the great love He had for each and every “unborn child” that ever has and ever will be conceived on this earth.  And that LOVE, that PASSION is the root from which compassion springs.